When BK Nehru (BKN) became Governor of Assam and Nagaland in 1968, he wrote in his entertaining and candid memoirs, Nice Guys Finish Second, “I really did not have the foggiest idea of what a Governor did, how he lived, what he was paid and what his position was.”
BKN’s dilemma was understandable. Right from when the position was debated in the Constituent Assembly of India there has been ambiguity on this. The Governor personifies the Indian State within each state, as the President does in the country as a whole. But as BKN noted, unlike the President, whose mostly ceremonial role is clear, clause (2) of Article 163 of the Constitution, states that there are circumstances – like the one in which Vidyasagar Rao, Governor of Tamil Nadu now finds himself – when “the Governor is by or under this Constitution required to act in his discretion” and the decisions he or she takes at this discretion are to be treated as final and cannot be challenged. This would seem to give the Governor real powers and it is why the Constituent Assembly debated making the position an elected one. But India was already committed to a model of parliamentary democracy like the United Kingdom’s and this did not allow for conflict between two elected positions at the top. The UK avoided the issue by having a hereditary monarch as head of State and countries like Australia and Canada did too – provincial heads of state in both places are vice-regents for the Crown.
India had to create its own norms. But the Constituent Assembly was also handicapped by not having a clear idea what form the new country would take at a federal level. The British had bequeathed a complicated patchwork of provinces, agencies (more directly administered, like the North East Frontier Agency), princely states of considerably different sizes and foreign enclaves, like Pondicherry, that were likely to be assimilated, but exactly how was still to be determined.
It was not surprising then that the Assembly felt that this amorphous nation needed extra power at the federal level to help it stick together. Alternate structures could have been devised where heads of state and government combine for greater strength. German states for example are run by Minister-Presidents who are both, while South Africa has an executive President who is elected by Parliament (he or she must be an elected MP, but quits on becoming President). But these structures reflect the particular histories of these countries and how they wrote their constitutions. India chose to develop its structures firmly in a framework of parliamentary democracy. BK N r e c a l le d adv ic e g iven by C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), erstwhile premier of Madras Presidency and the last Governor-General of India. He had said a Governor was like a federal fireman: “If all went well had nothing to do. Only if there was a fire was he called upon to put it out.” Firemen are vital, but we rarely think about or interact with them on a daily basis – even though they want us to, always wanting to do fire drills – and this was how the Governor’s role had developed. BKN noted the case of Jairamdass Daulatram, the first post-Independence Governor of Bihar: “He said he could not preside over a state where all kinds of corruption, mismanagement and breaches of the law were taking place without being able to do something about it.” But his activist attempts was thwarted by Bihar’s government which did not send him all the papers. Daulatram felt this was a breach of his constitutional rights and appealed to the Central government. “Vallabhai Patel and Mahatma Gandhi himself supported the Governor. Jawaharlal and Govind Ballabh Pant did not. The case was finally decided in favour of the Chief Minister. Jairamdass Daulatram resigned.” This would seem to clearly mark the limits of a Governor. C h i e f Mi n i s t e r s might choose to infor m a nd consu lt with them, but don’t have to. Of course, as observers noted, a CM who kept the Governor in the dark was inviting him to seek news from other, opposing sources. But if a CM was already disinclined to distrust a Governor, this would just fuel his feelings, leaving the two even more apart. And the stage was set for exactly this in the 1960s as non-Congress governments started coming to power in the states.
The politicisation of the Governor’s office has been debated and deplored to death. Ruling parties have denied it, opposing parties have decried it and suggested it as grounds to abolish the Governor’s office altogether, political writers – including a great many ex-Governors who all seem to find problems with the position once they leave office – have written at extreme length about the trend and suggested ways to solve the problem, like complicated panels to select Governors or ways to elect them.
Noneofthesehaveeversoundedconvincing because, really, the issue is simple: if the position has any political power then politicians will find some way to influence it because that is the nature of politics. The first attempts to use the Governor for political ends were done by the Congress, with the BJP, in its Jan Sangh avatar protesting strenuously. On April 27th, 1969 the Jan Sangh’s president, Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke at a public meeting at Chowpatty beach in Mumbai demanding the Supreme Court
determine the Governor’s discretionary powers and that an interState commission was set up to look into this. Court cases have taken place and the Sarkaria Commission made recommendations and today it is the Congress protesting, and BJP defending, the actions of Governors.
Not entirely surprisingly, such protests and defences have a largely ritualistic air. In the increasingly politicised world of today, the politicisation of the Governor’s position has pretty much been accepted as inevitable – but made easier perhaps by the recognition that this is itself constrained by politics. The rise of strong regional parties puts a check of sorts on the extent to which a Governor can really push the agenda of the Centre – because that would hand the regional parties a perfect opposing pitch. The current drama in Tamil Nadu is a good example. Governor Rao, whose deep BJP roots have been noted by all, might well want to increase the party’s inf luence in the state by backing either side with promises of how the Centre can support the winning faction. But this would hand a perfect campaigning slogan to the opposition in a state where the Dravidian movement is already strongly inclined to oppose many parts of the primarily North Indian BJP. While Tamil Nadu is particularly sensitive on this score, it’s not hard to see similar politics playing out in other states. If the Governor can neither be immune from politics, nor particularly effective at advancing a political agenda, why bother with the position at all? Is there a case for moving to a more German style system where provincial heads of government report directly to the federal, mostly ceremonial head of state? But what might work in the stable politics of Germany might come apart in the chaos of India, where Tamil Nadu style turmoil is common, and would overwhelm a single President’s ability to cope.
Intermediaries still seem needed to cope with situations like Tamil Nadu, but here is where Governor Rao’s actions might seem to point to some useful changes. The really unusual part that he has been playing is to be the Governor of not just one, but two large states, both with a fair potential for political churn. And if Rao can handle Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (and even find it useful, given how he seems to tactically move between the states), why can’t other Governors combine their roles? This has happened in the past, though only in minor, temporary ways. BKN’s position as, essentia l ly, Governor for most of the Northeast was not uncommon and in his memoirs he deplores the way it was broken up. A single Governor for the region could take a holistic view of its requirements, and also allow considerable economies of scale. Perhaps it is time to go back to this practice, extending it over India, with just a handful of Governors each handling a region.
To use that Rajaji’s analogy of fire brigades, cities require them, but not one on every street. And having just a few, perhaps openly political, but engaged and competent Governors might be the next stage in the evolution of the office.
The politicisation of the Governor’s position has pretty much been accepted as inevitable and is back in focus with the ongoing drama in Tamil Nadu. looks at how the role has evolved